Before many of our parents and grandparents became the Greatest Generation, they were first-generation Minnesotans. Learning the customs and language of native lands was a part of growing up. In one south Minneapolis neighborhood, kids spent two hours a day at the Greek Orthodox Church learning the language of their parents. Today, that same neighborhood is being revitalized by Latino businesses and Somali entrepreneurs.
Minnesota always has been a state of immigrants. Ten percent of our Twin Cities residents are foreign-born. Immigrant-owned businesses in our state employ 21,000 workers and generate more than $2 billion in economic activity. Latino and Asian-Americans in Minnesota make $7 billion in purchases annually, according to Concordia professor Bruce Corrie. These new Minnesotans create vibrant communities, expand our talent pool and enhance our arts and culture.
Let’s be clear: The American Dream always has sounded a clarion call around the world, and we are a better state and nation because of those who responded. The problem today isn’t immigrants. It is a broken immigration system that allows millions to live here illegally. Fixing it will strengthen America. Bringing underground employment above ground will increase government revenues while saving billions annually in enforcement costs.
Let’s get real: Even if we wanted to, we could not identify and deport the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants residing in our country. That’s not to ignore the very real problem of those immigrants who are engaged in criminal activity in this country. The Obama administration’s focus on law enforcement has resulted in 1½ times the deportations that occurred during the Bush years, yet challenges persist.
Let’s also be honest: It is not fair to the 1.9 million foreigners who come here legally each year — and the roughly 630,000 who become naturalized citizens annually — to offer blanket “amnesty” to the 11 million who did not follow the rules.
History has shown that solutions aren’t easy. Republicans emphasize securing the borders, often at an enormous financial cost. Democrats stress paths to citizenship, sometimes without acknowledging that not everyone deserves that right.
Our time in Washington coincided with the last major overhaul of immigration policy in 1986. The Immigration Reform and Control Act — with bipartisan congressional support and the backing of President Ronald Reagan — created a pathway for roughly 3 million illegal immigrants to seek citizenship. Consensus was achieved by balancing opportunity with enforcement of the law.
Today, the 1986 law is viewed by many on both sides of the aisle as a failure. Bipartisan reform efforts have given way to strident rhetoric but political timidity. President George W. Bush proposed easing guest-worker limits and making permanent residency a reality for more immigrants, combined with stronger enforcement of immigration laws.
President Obama promoted the DREAM Act to give those who came to the United States as minor children of undocumented parents a chance for permanent residency if they attend college or serve in the military. Both efforts had some bipartisan support, but ultimately were defeated by partisan agendas.
Ironically, the consequence of this intense partisanship might now be the catalyst for reform. Republican anti-immigration rhetoric alienated many new Americans in 2012. The GOP found that it’s hard to win elections with only 27 percent of American Hispanics voting for their party’s presidential candidate. Chastened, at least some Republicans now seem ready to offer solutions.
Still, given past skirmishes, anything championed by Obama will ignite partisan passions. Enter — thankfully — the bipartisan Senate Gang of Eight. This group —including assistant Majority Leader Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republican rising star Marco Rubio of Florida — has fashioned a package of reforms offering legal-worker status (though not necessarily citizenship) for those already here, provisions similar to the DREAM Act for youths and a sensible policy of allowing foreign students at our universities to stay and build careers in America.
Reform must also address policies that favor family reunification over critical workforce needs. In addition, strengthened efforts are needed to block illegal entry into the country and to ensure that workers are documented before they are hired.
The Gang of Eight has provided a legal and political framework for success, and we wish its members well. Minnesota and the country need an immigration system that works.
Tom Horner is a public-affairs consultant and was chief of staff to former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn. Tim Penny is president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and is a former Democratic member of Congress. Both are former Independence Party candidates for governor.